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The Fifth Course

Mandocaster love 2

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Last time I detailed the issues with the latter day Fender mandocasters (SB-4, SB-8/FM-984, FM-988) and claimed to love my Fender FM-988. Here’s the first reason why.

I play in a band called Señor Circus. My job in this band is to provide interesting support to the main thrust of the songs, which is acoustic guitar. Sometimes it includes bluesy chopping, sometimes it includes serving in the place of lead guitar, and sometimes it includes a hail of bright strummy notes. I do all this usually on mandolin. But as Señor, the leader of the band, added instruments and extended the sonic range of the band, it became necessary for me to employ electric instruments., especially when lead guitar-like lines were called for.

I quickly added my Epiphone Mando(la)bird to my Señor Circus rig and started acquiring and tailoring effects and amplification to suit my spot in a full band with horns and percussion. I wanted to continue to use my Gary Vessel F5, but that became impossible after I realized that I would need to install a pickup. I just did not want to do anything that might alter the acoustic tone of my favorite instrument, and I did not want to subject it to the rigors of bar gigs. I decided that a new instrument would suit my purposes better, and I went shopping

Around my birthday, in March 2009, my lovely wife asked me what I wanted as a birthday present. By that time I had researched Godin’s A-8, played an example at NAMM in January, and decided that I would rather go “whole hog” with a fully electric 8 string mandolin than attempt to approximate the acoustic sound of an F5 style mandolin. Playing the Godin and watching Wendell Ferguson’s video on Youtube ( helped a great deal. So told her I was interested in an Eastwood Mandocaster.

I would definitely have punted and ‘settled’ for a 4 string if I could find a Fender Electric Mandolin (mandcaster) in my rather low price range. But I knew that was not going to happen. I had visited the Chicago Music Exchange’s web site and even emailed them for pricing information. So I settled on an Eastwood and told myself that 8 strings would be more useful to me anyway.

Besides, an Eastwood seemed a prudent and modest request given the amount of gigging Señor Circus does in a year and the relatively modest price of an Eastwood. My wife accepted the challenge and attacked the Intenet in search of the best deal possible for an Eastwood Mandocaster.

Several days into her research, she uncovered an online dealer who had recently stopped using eBay. She said, “Look at this,” and turned her laptop toward me. It was a sonic blue Fender FM-988. Immediately, bells rung in my head. An uncommon instrument would be a real treat. It cost more than twice as much as a Eastwood Mandocaster and much less than half as much as a Fender mandocaster. So I crossed my fingers and said, “Grab it!”

The next hour was filled with explanations on my part about the rarity of the instrument and encouragement of her to visit and read about Fender electric mandolins on Martin Stillion’s The detailed information on Martin’s site definitely helped my wife feel comfortable with my request.

She searched the web for another 24 hours (total, not consecutive) looking for a cheaper version of the same model and came up empty. Emails to the dealer went back and forth, and finally a phone call was made before we felt confident of the dealer’s bona fides.

When the FM-988 finally arrived, it was a minor let down. It was a little rough. The finish was not as bad as I had thought, but the hardware was not up to Fender brand standards. It was more like Squier brand standards. Clearly, the little blue mando would require some work to get it into real playing shape. But it did have a ton of potential, and it is a bit of a rare bird, so I decided fairly quickly to keep the instrument and improve it.

Luckily, I live near one of the best mandolin luthiers in the world, Gary Vessel, and I have access to both and the Mandolin Café, webs sites that can and have offered advice and direct contact with people willing to offer their services to this tinkerer of rather particular tastes.

One of the reasons I love this mandolin is that my guitar and drum loving wife put a lot of effort into researching, finding, vetting, and ultimately purchasing it. She would rather hear me play guitar than mandolin, but she jumped into this venture whole-heartedly and supportively. How could I not love it?

The other reason is that it is now exactly the mandolin I had hoped I was getting when I purchased it. The diamond has been cut by a pair of masters who have helped bring out its true beauty.

And that’s the story I will tell, with photos, next time.


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